Appointing officials by drawing lots in late Imperial China (1594-1911)

3. The Chinese world
By Pierre-Étienne Will

The drawing by lots of local magistrate appointments by the Ministry of Personnel was instituted in 1594 in the late Ming dynasty amidst bitter factional rivalries. The aim was to protect the process of filling positions—some of which were deemed more desirable than others—from influence peddling and corruption. Though celebrated at first for its fairness, the new procedure was soon criticized, both because of the rigging it was inviting and for its inability to select men suited to the peculiarities of the positions made available. This essay shows that despite such oppositions, filling more and more categories of administrative positions by drawing lots remained the rule throughout this entire period until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. It in fact ceased to be debated from the turn of the eighteenth century onward, the reason being in part that the power of appointment to the positions deemed the most important and financially rewarding was gradually transferred to provincial governors. While it did make possible the informed choice of experienced officials, this new situation only moved the problem of corruption to the provinces. On the other hand, the emperor retained his ability to directly fill the positions regarded as being of strategic importance.


  • China
  • Ming
  • Qing
  • sortition
  • civil servants’ nomination
  • Sun Peiyang
  • Gu Yanwu
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